After a hour-long first quarter that saw the University of South Dakota score 17 and junior quarterback Chris Streveler throw for 163 yards and two touchdowns, the Coyotes looked good Saturday against Western Illinois.
They added another two touchdowns in the second quarter to go into halftime up 31-14. The second half was another story as the Coyote offense struggled to get points on the board and Western Illinois rallied to defeat the Coyotes 35-34.
This game marked another in a series of close games for the Coyotes whether they were wins or losses. In fact, all but two of USD’s eight games this season have been within one score.
“We’ve been living on the edge, you know,” said Coyote head coach Bob Nielson. “When you live on the edge, sometimes you slip a little bit and we slipped on Saturday, a game that I think by all accounts was a game we certainly had an opportunity to put in the win column.”
USD opened the scoring in the first quarter on a 20-yard pass from Streveler to freshman wide receiver Trystn Ducker. The Leathernecks would equal on a 55-yard touchdown run to even the game at seven. USD would add a field goal from senior Miles Bergner and Western Illinois would score again to put it at 14-10 Leathernecks.
The USD offense then seemed to find its groove as the Coyotes would rattle off 21 unanswered points. A touchdown pass from Streveler to freshman wide receiver Dakarai Allen and two touchdown runs, one from senior running back Trevor Bouma and one from Streveler, gave the Coyotes breathing room at the half.
Western Illinois came out of the break and scored two rushing touchdowns in the third to make it a close 31-28 Coyotes. Bergner would make a 21-yard field goal in the third to put the Coyotes up 34-28.
With 4:33 left in the game, the momentum changed. The Coyotes drove the ball to the Western Illinois one yard line and seemed primed to put the game away. On a rush just like the one that scored him a touchdown in the second quarter, Bouma lost the ball and fumbled into the end zone.
Western Illinois recovered the fumble and took over on the Coyote 25-yard line. From there, they drove down the field and scored with just 32 seconds left. The Coyotes managed to get to the Western Illinois 37 on their ensuing possession, but two incomplete passes meant they would have to attempt a 54-yard field goal. Bergner’s kick was just short and left and Western Illinois escaped with a 35-34 win.
Despite the loss, Streveler posted good numbers, throwing for 373 yards and two touchdowns on 29-40 passing. He also ran for another 102 yards and a touchdown, Bouma had the other Coyote rushing touchdown and the senior also ran for 42 yards. Junior Brandt Van Roekel led the Coyotes in receiving with 137 yards.
Despite the low scoring second half, moving the ball wasn’t the problem for the Coyotes — it was putting points on the board.
“Honestly, I thought we moved the ball relatively well,” Nielson said. “I think we had over 200 yards of offense in the second half, but unfortunately we just didn’t score any points. That’s been atypical of us, we’ve been pretty good in red zone, but we had three possessions fairly deep in Western territory in the second half and only got three points from it.”
Nielson also pointed out momentum and how converting third downs can be a big key to gaining it:
“There’s some things we’ve talked about that I think we can do better,” Nielson said. “We’ve got to be able to get a yard when we need a yard and we had two of those situations in the second half that we didn’t convert on third and goal. Those are big plays and potential momentum changing plays in the game.”
On defense, true freshman defensive back Marchalo Judge Jr. had a strong outing with eight total tackles and one tackle for loss. Sophomore DB Danny Rambo had five total tackles and an interception with a 26-yard return.
For Judge and the defense, the late touchdown drive from Western Illinois is something that makes them want to play harder.
“We’ve just got to come out with a different mentality to finish and put them away early, so we don’t need to put ourselves in that situation,” Judge said. “We changed practice methods around a little bit, working harder, moving around a little bit more. The juice is getting back into the program so that loss is definitely motivating us to work a little harder.”
As a true freshman, Judge has been having a strong season. He led the team in tackles against Western Illinois and his forced fumble against Illinois State was one of the highlights of the game. Despite the individual praise, Judge is more focused on getting team wins than individual accolades.
“It’s felt great you know, being a true freshman that doesn’t really happen very often, especially in FCS football,” Judge said. “It feels great to come in and help my team tremendously, but at the end of the day, it’s about wins and we didn’t do that Saturday, so we need to change something and do something to change the outcome this Saturday.”
The loss drops the Coyotes to 4-4 on the season and 3-2 in Missouri Valley play. Their conference record has them tied for second place with Western Illinois. They are one game out of first place, which is held by the 4-1 trio of North Dakota State, Youngstown State and South Dakota State.
“I mean, we’re one game out of first place in the league with three games remaining, certainly three very tough games, but at the same time, we’re still in a position where we can control our own destiny and to do that, we’ve just got to keep getting better and we’ve got to find a way to win this week,” Nielson said.
The Coyotes are now focused on moving past the tough loss and focusing on the task ahead of them — Southern Illinois.
“We’ve got to put it behind us, we can’t get it back,” Nielson said. “We’ve had a couple of those we’d like to have back at the same time, on the flip side, we’ve had a couple of wins that I’m sure our opponents are saying they’d like to have back. What we can do is we can change the course this week and play our best football against Southern Illinois.”
The Salukis are 2-6 on the year and 0-5 in Missouri Valley play. Their record can be deceptive, but Nielson is confident his team will not over look them.
“I don’t think that will be the case at all particularly coming off last week,” Nielson said. “When you watch them, they are a very good football team. They are offensively one of the top teams in the league. They do a great job of playing offense from sideline to sideline, it’s a balanced attack. So we’ve got our work cut out for us. We’ve got a great defensive challenge and offensively part of our challenge is to be consistent. That’s really been the message we’ve put forward is we’ve got to be a team that’s more consistent for 60 minutes.”
The Coyotes will travel to Carbondale Illinois this Saturday to take on Southern Illinois. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m.
Judge said that no matter the record, the Coyotes are going to come out strong.
“The record, we’re not really looking at that so much because we have an even record,” Judge said. “We’re just going to take this game as a championship game and try to finish them off early.”